Earth Day Smackdown: Homemade vs. Store-Bought Cleaners

By on

You’ve probably heard that you can make your own cleaning products from ingredients found around the house. But how do they stack up against commercial cleaners?

Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson finds that you can clean your home effectively — killing germs and bacteria while protecting your health and caring for the environment (Tuesday, April 22, is Earth Day!) — and for about half of what you’re probably paying now. In the video below he explains more. Watch it, then read on to learn how to use these cleaners and see tests of their effectiveness.

Save on supplies

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ survey of consumer expenditures says U.S. households spent an average of $610 on housekeeping supplies in 2012.

Not only do homemade cleaners cut that cost in half, they’re also safer because many commercial cleaning products contain toxic ingredients, Jessica Kellner, editor-in-chief of Mother Earth Living, tells Money Talks News.

Head-to-head comparisons

Few tests can be found online pitting commercial cleaners against homemade. Most of the ones we did find involve vinegar, the go-to natural cleaner.

Lifehacker’s Annie Hauser compared homemade cleaners with commercial products. She says she was skeptical at first.

The idea that you can clean your house or apartment and dress your salad with many of the same products seems a little weird – and mixing up a fresh batch of furniture polish seems a little “Little House on the Prairie.”

But her results were “surprising.” Here are her four tests and conclusions:

  • Test 1. Mixture of liquid dish soap and baking soda vs. multi-surface cleaner. Winner: Dish soap and baking soda.
  • Test 2. A mix of one part olive oil and one part vinegar vs. wood polish spray. Winner: Wood polish spray.
  • Test 3. Solution of one part rubbing alcohol, one part white vinegar and two parts water vs. glass cleaner. Winner: Rubbing alcohol mix.
  • Test 4. One cup vinegar in a gallon of water vs. wood floor polish. Winner: Tied.

Vinegar: Queen of green clean

Vinegar ($2 to $3 for a gallon of white vinegar) is an “incredibly effective” cleaner, Kellner says. It will “kill about 90 percent of household germs.”

Look for vinegar with a label that says 5 percent acidity. White vinegar often is used for cleaning.

Rodale News compares vinegar with bleach:

[Vinegar] is probably strong enough to handle most germy tasks, and when it doesn’t work, resort to hot soapy water. Use bleach as a last resort, use it sparingly (follow the 1:4 ratio), and make sure the room is well-ventilated so you don’t hurt your lungs.

Rodale adds:

Various studies have found that vinegar, usually in combination with table salt or hydrogen peroxide, can inhibit the growth of some strains of E. coli. It’s also an effective mold killer.

Don’t mix vinegar and hydrogen peroxide, however. Mixing reduces the effectiveness of both. Instead, spray or wash first with vinegar, then peroxide, letting the last spray air dry.

In a separate test, by Cook’s Illustrated magazine, a vinegar solution of one part vinegar to three parts water removed 98 percent of bacteria from the surface of fruits and vegetables, National Public Radio reported.

Houselogic compared five homemade dishwasher detergents and one commercial product. Conclusion: None got an oatmeal-encrusted pot lid perfectly clean, but the most effective was a recipe of borax, washing soda, kosher salt and unsweetened lemonade mix.

The winning recipe (on the site) costs about 2 cents a load, says houselogic, a National Association of Realtors publication. Commercial detergents cost as much as 40 cents per load, the article says — $146 a year for running your dishwasher daily.


Not everyone agrees that homemade products are as effective as commercial ones. NPR added that, although Cook’s Illustrated found that vinegar was excellent for removing bacteria on fruits and vegetables, researchers at the Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Tennessee State University also found that “water can remove 98 percent of bacteria when it’s used to rinse and soak produce.” Rubbing or brushing helps in cleaning — with vinegar or plain water.

Homemade cleaning products didn’t earn the highest marks in a Consumer Reports test. “Most made-at-home brews often are effective, though they don’t perform as well as the products you’ll find in stores,” CR says.

CR did give high marks to a glass-cleaning solution (you’ll find the recipe in the article) of soapy ammonia, water and rubbing alcohol. (Buy soapy ammonia in stores or make your own.)

While not all homemade cleaners are more effective than commercial ones, they are better overall because they’re safer for health and because of environmental reasons, Kellner says. What counts most is your own experience. For users like Kellner, satisfaction with their homemade cleaners is test enough.

9 other powerful ingredients

Here are nine more ingredients used in safe, effective green cleaning, along with a few of their many uses. Some can be used alone. Often, they’re combined. You’ll find links to recipes and more uses at the end of this article.

  • Lemons (about 49 cents each). Lemon juice cuts grease, removes stains, brightens laundry, cleans surfaces (including tile grout) and neutralizes odors. Grind a half lemon in your kitchen sink disposal to deodorize it.
  • Salt (4 pounds of table salt for about $1.19). Some prefer coarse sea salt, but table salt also is used for scrubbing. It is abrasive but doesn’t scratch surfaces. Salt can remove red wine stains, as this Real Simple video demonstrates.
  • Castille soap (about $1.26 for a 4-ounce bar). Castille is an olive oil-based soap. Dr. Bronner’s is one popular brand. Castille soap is gentle but effective (in a solution with warm or hot water) at removing grease. Use it for cleaning floors and cars.
  • Pure essential oils (most range between $2.50 and $10 for a half-ounce bottle). Extracted from plants, these oils are powerful, so research first and use carefully. Extracts of thyme, origanum, mint, cinnamon, salvia and clove “were found to possess the strongest antimicrobial properties among many tested,” according to research by the Technical University of Lodz, Poland. Some users like lemon, tea tree and orange oils for their cleansing properties. Still other oils are used for fragrance.
  • Borax (about $12.95 for 1.5 pounds). Household borax is sodium tetraborate, “a naturally occurring substance produced by the repeated evaporation of seasonal lakes,” says the website of 20 Mule Team Borax. Among other things, it’s used to boost detergents, control odors, clean toilet bowls, brighten grout, deodorize carpets, pet beds and dishwashers, remove soap scum and hard water deposits, and as an all-purpose cleaner.
  • Baking soda (as little as $2.24 for 4 pounds). An effective odor neutralizer, sodium bicarbonate — and its stronger relative, washing soda (sodium carbonate) also cut grease. Wear gloves using washing soda. Unlike baking soda, washing soda is not edible.
  • Rubbing alcohol (about $2.80 for a 16-ounce bottle). Reader’s Digest recommends rubbing alcohol for cleaning blinds, windows, ink stains and bathroom fixtures, removing ticks, and melting windshield frost. In a 1-to-1 mixture with water, it prevents ice bags from freezing completely, so you can mold them around the surface you want to chill.
  • Cooking oil (about $17.50 a gallon). Vegetable and other plant-based oils can bring moisture back to dried-out wood, rattan and wicker. It moisturizes skin and leather, and polishes wood, stainless steel, pots and pans.
  • Hydrogen peroxide (about $1.80 for a 32-ounce bottle of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide). After cleaning a sink, disinfect it by misting separately with vinegar and hydrogen peroxide, says Again: Don’t mix vinegar and hydrogen peroxide; it reduces the effectiveness of both.

Now, get started

If you’re ready to give homemade cleaners a try, here are tips and resources for getting started:

Share your successes (and failures) making your own cleaning products by posting a comment below or at Money Talks News’ Facebook page.

Sign up for our free newsletter

Like this article? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you a regular digest of our newest stories, full of money saving tips and advice, free! We'll also email you a PDF of Stacy Johnson's "205 Ways to Save Money" as soon as you've subscribed. It's full of great tips that'll help you save a ton of extra cash. It doesn't cost a dime, so why wait? Click here to sign up now.

Check out our hottest deals!

We're always adding new deals and coupons that'll save you big bucks. See the deals to the right and hundreds more in our Deals section.

Click here to explore 1,356 more deals!

Comments & discussion

We welcome your opinions, but let’s keep it civil. Like many businesses, we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. In our case, that means those who communicate by name-calling, racism, using words designed to hurt others or generally acting like an uninformed bully. Also, comments that include links to email addresses or commercial websites typically aren't posted. This isn't a place to advertise your business.

  • Sherrie Ludwig

    I clean my copper bowls and pans with either a squeezed lemon rind dipped in salt or a vinegar-soaked paper towel dipped in salt. Amazing clean, totally non-toxic.

  • Ann Stone

    I started cleaning my home (& hair & body) with some of the ingredients listed, out of a desire to avoid making purchases from companies, which test on animals or use animal products, and my home, hair & skin have all benefited from this change. And the bonus is, I’m not poisoning my family every time I clean!

  • Y2KJillian

    Borax is surprisingly effective against ants, too. Take a little corn syrup and mix about 1/4 as much borax into it. Mix well and put daubs outside near where the ants are crawling…they will take it back to the nest where they’ll eat it and it will kill all of them. Make sure your pets don’t eat it; and don’t do what we did the first year, which was to put it indoors along an ant trail…put it OUTside! You can then sprinkle dry borax around your house perimeter and sweep it in well; it’s also good for fleas in carpeting if you brush it in very well (sprinkle lightly–a little dab’ll do ya).

    • Jcatz4

      You say “make sure your pets don’t eat it” but what about the critters outside that might eat it?? I have kitties that come to visit (one I know belongs to a neighbor) and there’s a bunny, opossum, a ground hog and I have sometimes seen a skunk. Of course, there is also the squirrels and birds. I am an animal lover and do not wish to hurt any animal.